Definition of Sibilance

Sibilance is a literary device where strongly stressed consonants are created deliberately by producing air from vocal tracts through the use of lips and tongue. Such consonants produce hissing sounds. However, in poetry, it is used as a stylistic device, and sibilants are used more than twice in quick succession. Most of the times, the “s” sound is the sibilant.

Difference Between Alliteration and Sibilance

Alliteration is produced by the repetition of first consonant sounds in the words, generally the first one or two letters, such as in “A big bully beats a baby boy.” However, sibilance is also a specific type of alliteration that uses the soft consonants. In sibilance, hissing sounds are created. These soft consonants are s, with sh, ch, and th, including three others such as z, x, f and soft c. For instance, “Sing a Song of Sixpence” is the title of a famous nursery rhyme, which can be considered as a good example of sibilance.

Examples of Sibilance in Literature

Example #1: A Cradle Song (By William Blake)

“Sweet dreams, form a shade
O’er my lovely infants head.
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy silent moony beams
Sweet sleep with soft down.
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweet sleep Angel mild,
Hover o’er my happy child.
Sweet smiles in the night,
Hover over my delight.
Sweet smiles Mothers smiles

Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes,
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles.”

The poem has a simple aabb rhyme scheme. Blake makes heavy use of sibilance in this poem, especially the “s” sound, as in the bold words. In a similar way, the use of “sh” and “ch” sounds in the words “shade” and “chase” gives softer effects.

Example #2: Ode to Autumn (By John Keats)

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.”

This is the first stanza of the poem, which is filled with music and sibilance. The words noted in bold are all are sibilance examples. These are voiced with hissing sounds.

Example #3: Macbeth (By William Shakespeare)

“As whence the sun ‘gins his reflection
Shipwracking storms and direful thunders break,
So from that spring whence comfort seemed to come
Discomfort swells. Mark, King of Scotland, mark:
No sooner justice had, with valor armed…
But the Norweyan lord, surveying vantage,
With furbished arms and new supplies of men…
Till seven at night. To make society
The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourselves
Till suppertime alone. While then, God be with you!”

Here we can clearly see the softer consonants of sibilance, such as “s” sounds in the words noted in bold.

Example #4: Prelude 3 (By T. S. Eliot)

“THE WINTER evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet…

The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.”

In this excerpt, the repetition of the “s” sound (sibilance) is used throughout the poem. It emphasizes the atmosphere of dirty lives. In addition, the continuous use of the “s” sound gives an example of onomatopoeia, as the “scraping” sounds of leaves.

Function of Sibilance

An atmosphere can be created through sibilance, which helps in drawing the attention of readers, painting a more colorful picture of the idea or the event. With the help of sibilance, descriptive scenes can be explained more carefully by laying stress on the specific letters. In fact, the sense of repeated sounds, and then the making up of different literary devices through sibilance creates further musical effect for the readers.

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